Less than two weeks after Japanese side Urawa Red Diamonds were crowned Champions of Asia’s premier club competition, the draw for next season’s iteration has taken place, and already looks to serve up some tantalising encounters for fans of the game in East Asia.
Firstly, Urawa themselves will not be present to defend their AFC Champions League crown, after a shockingly poor domestic campaign saw them finish 7th in the J-League.
The first round of qualifying sees the Champions from the four lowest ranked associations face off against each other.
Indonesian Champions Bali United will take on Tampines Rovers from Singapore, while Burmese side Shan United will take on the yet undecided champions of the Philippines.
The next round sees the entrance of two Thai sides, Muangthong United and debutants Chiang Rai United, as well as Brisbane Roar of Australia, Eastern FC of Hong Kong, Vietnamese side Thanh Hoa FC, and Johor Darul Takzim of Malaysia.
The final playoff round will then roll out the red carpet for Asian powerhouses such as Suwon Bluewings of Korea and Shanghai SIPG of China. Fellow
Chinese side Tianjin Quanjian will be making their debut in the competition, under the guidance of former Fiorentina manager Paulo Souza, after losing coach Fabio Cannavaro to Chinese champions Guangzhou Evergrande.
This impressive lineup will be completed by a team from Japan, which currently remains ambiguous due to the fact that their domestic cup is yet to conclude.
The current lineup for the group stage is, due to the number of teams yet to finish qualifying and the incomplete Japanese domestic season, merely a skeleton at this point, but still contains the promise of some fantastic encounters between Asia’s elite.
Group E contains Korean champions Jeonbuk Hyundai, who won the competition two years ago.
They are joined by Hong Kong champions Kitchee, with the two remaining slots in their group being reserved for teams coming through the qualifying.
One slot remains particularly ambiguous, as the winner of a match between Thai side Muangthong and Malaysian champions JDT will face an unknown Japanese team to earn a place in the group.
The other slot will likely be awarded to the winner of a potentially mouthwatering clash between Brisbane Roar and Tianjin Quanjian, save for a shock involving a team from Myanmar or the Philippines.
If Muangthong and Brisbane do make it through, it will mark a reunion between two sides that met in the group stage of last year’s competition.
The headline team from Group F are Japanese champions Kawasaki Frontale, who recently claimed their first ever league title, beating Kashima Antlers to the crown on goal difference.
They will be joined by Korean side Ulsan Hyundai and Australian outfit Melbourne Victory.
The remaining slot will likely go to Shanghai SIPG, as it would require an immense effort from Chiang Rai United or either of their potential qualifying opponents to remove the Chinese club from the competition at such an early stage in the competition.
SIPG’s rivals Guangzhou Evergrande, who recently sealed their seventh consecutive Chinese league crown, are drawn into Group G alongside Thai Champions Buriram United, who have won their own domestic league six times in the last ten seasons.
They will be joined by Korean side Jeju United, and a Japanese team that will either be third-placed Cerezo Osaka or any one of their four competitors for the domestic cup.
Evergrande will have to settle quickly under the stewardship of new boss Fabio Cannavaro, after the retirement of legendary Brazilian coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, given the number of tricky trips that the Chinese champions could face in this group.
And finally, group H features Australian Champions Sydney FC, as well as Japanese side Kashima Antlers and Chinese team Shanghai Shenhua; the team of Carlos Tevez that snuck into the competition via the Chinese FA Cup after a largely underwhelming league campaign.
They will be joined either by Suwon Bluewings, Eastern or Thanh Hoa FC.
The AFC Champions League remains the elusive prize for many of these clubs. From the high-profile debutants to the seasoned competitors, another exhilarating season is set in a region passionate for the game.